So, with the pdf release of Icons there seems to be a lot of talk in the RPG blogosphere about random character creation. Specifically a lot of people calling for it to come back, or remembering the better days when you didn't have to worry as much about munchkins because the dice determined the character, so it was harder to twink them out. "Yes sir, things were a lot better back then. Why did we ever step away from that?" seems to be a growing view. Now, I'm not here to say that that is bad, but what I do want to do is take a look at some of the strengths, and weaknesses, of the Randomly Generated Character so that if you're making a game system you can be properly informed. This probably won't be all inclusive, just the ones I've run into (repeatedly) in my years of gaming.
Before we begin, I guess I'll put my personal opinion. This may color how you see my views, so you should know it before hand. Personally, I tend towards point buy, or a system where I can build my character. Not that I have anything particularly against Random Char Gen, just I don't think it works for a lot of the newer vein of RPGs as well. Some of the weaknesses also irk me, but there are some games (like Dark Heresy and Icons) where the random char gen can be good and fun.
Lets start off with the negative, it will let us end on a positive note after all.
Can't Be What I Want To Be
The first, and most glaring weakness I see in random char gen is that it can prevent you from playing the character you want. I remember the trouble I had back in AD&D 2nd ed trying to play a Paladin because I just could not roll stats high enough to meet the requirements for being a Paladin. I wanted to play one, the group needed one, heck the GM thought it would be cool, but the dice just wouldn't let me do it. Eventually the GM let me choose where to place the stats I rolled, and on the sixth or seventh set of stats I was finally able to meet those requirements and make a character who just barely qualified to be a Paladin. Now, Paladin had steep requirements (it is/was a powerful class) and many games now a days don't have class requirements for base things, but the problem still persists.
If you aren't allowed to choose where stats go, you can quickly have your plans for a strong character be dashed by a low roll for strength. That scholar you were planning on being? Good luck doing that with a 4 out of 18 for Intelligence. Even with being able to place them you can have problems. I tried out Icon's character creation on my own last night, and while I did have fun (thanks to some of the strengths in random generation) I also had a problem. In several of the chars I rolled up I was left with some drastically low stats (like 1s and 2s) with just enough 'moderate' (5-6s, which are human peak but I consider the human peak moderate in a supers game. especially with 1s and 2s on the sheet). The stats added up to just over 20, so the books 'reroll' mechanic didn't kick in, and I was left with a character with some devastating weaknesses, and no matter what I did one of the areas I would want the character strong (considering the rolled powers) would be exceptionally weak. Not exactly what I am looking for in a supers game, or any game. Not that it isn't potentially fun, just kind of a nuisance in the character.
Oh, and speaking of rerolling stats, as that is the general answer most GMs have in that situation. "Man, that's horrible. Reroll those", how many times do you reroll before it is just more of a hassle than it is worth? I mean, if I am rerolling until I have good stats, why not just give me good stats and leave the dice out of it? Which brings up the second issue, as it is a primary cause for 'those suck, reroll them' rulings from GMs.
Now, this isn't exactly a bad thing (see the Strengths section below) but it is something that can quickly become annoying. Dice are random, they trend towards a certain factor sure (usually where the 'average' stats for a game are located) but that doesn't mean they will fall their. I'm sure most of you who have played in a Random Char Gen game know the story. You go to roll your stats, and no matter how you do it you just keep getting the low end of average or lower. Now this doesn't preclude you from playing what you want, but your stats are fairly low. Meanwhile, across the table Suzy 'Lady Luck' McAllister can't stop throwing the max stats. The end result? You have a char with fairly low stats, she has a char with incredibly high stats. One of these characters is significantly more capable than the other, and there really isn't much you can do about it.
Now as char gen continues, if you are doing the rest point buy, you need to shore up weaknesses in stats by picking abilities that do so just so you can be good at something, while she is able to become even more exceptional. If it is random char gen all the way, this trend can continue to the point where your character is just weaker than hers simply because the dice said so. Hope you don't mind being fourth or fifth best. Now maybe, if you rolled truly abysmally compared to the group your GM will give you a reroll. But if everyone rolled average and Suzy rolled exceptionally, well, it is pretty rare to non-existant to have a GM take away good rolls that were done fairly.
Not So Random
This is one that comes out less with abilities and more with things like rolling for powers. I'm going to use Icons for the example here. When rolling for powers in icons you roll 2d6, compare the result to a chart, and that tells you what type of power it is. Now, 2d6 has 36 possible dice combinations, but only 11 possible results (2-12 as opposed to the 1-6 on each die matched to the 1-6 on the other). Of those 11 possible results, you are most likely to get a 7 (6 out of 36 possible outcomes give you a result of a 7. The next closest are 6 and 8 which have 5/36 chances of happening).
Now, the designer has helped mitigate this by making groupings of numbers at the ends. However, this is still by no means even. The power types at the bottom and top of the board each only have a 3/36 chance of happening. While the power at 7 still has a 6/36 chance of happening. Two of the number groups have a 7/36 chance of coming up. So you're left with a 3/36, 7/36, 5/36, 6/36, 5/36, 7/36, 3/36 order of getting powers. Or in other words, you have a 20/36 chance of getting 3 out of the possible 7 powers. An over 50% chance to get less than 50% of the powers. Is it close? Sure, but it isn't exactly random, and some of those abilities in the 3/36 ranges can be fairly common things for players to want. Icons actually does a good job of balancing this out in other ways too (like I said before, I don't want to attack the game) but it is something you should be aware of happening.
Harder to Catch Cheating
This is a minor gripe, but something I felt I'd share. Who here aside from me knows someone who somehow ALWAYS rolled an 18(100) strength in AD&D 2nd ed? That's kinda ridiculous isn't it, but it is possible to happen. When rolling for things randomly, it is possible for someone to always roll the best possible result for themselves, and if you're not watching it is incredibly hard to call. Now if playing with friends or a group you know, this shouldn't happen, but in other instances it can be a problem. Sometimes even happening on accident, a dice getting turned after it had fallen, math being done wrong, but it is next to impossible to prove (shy of video taping the rolls) as long as the result is within the possible outcome of the dice.
Enough with the negativity, lets look at some of the strengths we have here.
Now, while I said that rolling dice could create unbalanced teams by how they come out, it is also important to point out the other side of that. Random Char Creation is fair in the way only chaos can be. You aren't penalized for not knowing the system, not knowing what goes best with what, because everyone is determining things randomly. You can't plan things out, you can just write down what the dice give you and go with that. This means there is (in more adversarial games at least) less difference in character ability simply due to a difference in player ability or knowledge of the system.
Random char gen, done right with tables within easy reach of each other can be blazingly fast by comparison. You don't need to go sorting and searching through every last ability to pick out the ones you want or need for your character, simply grab your dice roll, and write down what you get. A system that does near total random char gen can be done incredibly fast with just a few book marks and some readily available dice. Definitely a plus for those one shots or filler sessions that you may need to do.
This goes hand in hand with the 'fairness' and the 'unbalanced' group weaknesses, but groups designed with random generation can feel a lot more like a group that fate just randomly threw together. This works great for games like Dark Heresy where people are just thrown into different jobs willy nilly, and you can have someone end up an accountant who is dumb as nails and can't do math to save their life. You get a better 'natural' feel out of characters when stats are done randomly, and not planned out with care.
The things random tables give you are just out there. Don't believe me? Look at the example 'created character' you get in Icons. Tell me that is a collection of powers you would throw together with point buy. How about the Super strong, intelligence 2, speedster with Emotion Control and Telepathy that I rolled up? These are interesting things that you just don't get with point buy, and figuring out a way to make it all work is a very fun method of creativity. If you ever want to give your story-craft abilities a work out, grab one of the game systems with random char gens, and just roll up some characters than try to make stories that make everything you just rolled out work. Some of what you come up with will just be silly, but you'll be amazed by just how creative you can be when push comes to shove at times.
Bad Rolls = Fun
I've said this before, hell there is an entire post about it here, but bad rolls can lead to fun. Low stats, weaknesses built into the character can give you a fun time. Especially as a problem solver. Need to knock that guy over but have an abysmally low strength? Better start thinking. How do you outrun someone that is that much faster than your slow butt? Better start thinking there too. One of the awesome things about RPGs is they can seriously help your problem solving skills and out of the box thinking. They do this by putting limitations on you, that you then need to cross over. Randomly generated characters will have a whole bunch of these limitations put on you in places you'd never expect, or do to yourself.
Test Your Horizons
Hand in hand with inspiring creativity, random characters will also help you spread your horizons in what you can play. Sure, maybe you didn't roll what you needed for that paladin, but you have what you need for a mage. You've never been good at those, but why not give it a shot. Next thing you know you are learning and improving, becoming a more well rounded player. All because the dice put you into a place you may not have put yourself.
There are strengths and weaknesses to randomly generated characters, there are probably a lot more than I put here (and by all means, chime in if you know some). Different people like different things, and neither way is right. I'll try and do a matching post to this one later on about the strengths and weaknesses of point buy. Just keep in mind that both have merits, and if you are considering one but can do both give the option. Otherwise, just check into your game, and see if the strengths are more appropriate for what you are trying for or not.
Personally, I like building my own character so my escapist fantasy is one I may enjoy, but that doesn't mean Random isn't good. As I said, I had a lot of fun randomly making people in Icons last night, just as I have with my Dark heresy characters I've made. Just keep your eyes open, and have fun.